… would you use early decision on any one school, provided that school in question offered that option? If so, which department at which school?
One may wonder why undergraduate admissions (and, to a lesser extent, law school, medical school and business school) commonly offer the option of applying in early decision (mostly private schools in the case of undergraduate admissions, but Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary are two of the top publics that offer it) but PhD programs don’t. Before I get to answer that question, let us review what early action and early decision are.
- Early action (EA) requires students to submit applications early, and decisions are made by December. It allows one to decline the acceptance offer if admitted, so it’s non-binding. One can therefore submit multiple early action applications.
- Early decision (ED) still requires one to submit applications early, with decisions made at around the same time as with early action. However, unlike early action, early decision is binding. Two releases from ED are possible: through deferral (unless a school has two rounds of ED) or through proof of inability to meet financial contribution (for undergrad). Because ED is binding, one can only submit one application under ED.
Business schools are unique in the sense that there are multiple rounds of early action (usually the first round if a B-school offers more than one round) offered, in which case early action truly is your best chance most of the time. But a succinct explanation as to why there are no early admissions mechanisms in use for PhD programs has been supplied on PhysicsGRE.com, if only a little incomplete.
One major difference is that in undergrad admission, there are [hundreds] (or more!) or seats, so the school can afford to do something like set aside some fraction of the seats and offer them to the top X% of early decision applicants knowing that these are students they would have accepted anyways. However, PhD programs are more specialized and with the smaller number of applicants and openings, it’s not really viable.
Most PhD programs will want to see all of the applicants in order to pick the best ones, especially since they might want to do things like balance subfields and other factors. In addition, the only students that will probably be so good that the school wants them without even seeing the rest of the applicants are going to be the ones who get good offers from many schools. Thus, it’s not in the best interest of these students to commit to only a single school. This case would be helpful when a really strong student really wants to go to a single school only, but I think these are really rare!!
So, I think the only people that would benefit from this type of program are the students who are only interested in one single school AND somehow need to know the decision in e.g. late Fall instead of Feb-Mar. I think this population is so small that it’s not worth implementing all the logistics to evaluate applications early.
Single-choice early action is, like early decision, used on only one school but it is not binding.